Not all those who wander are lost…
“One should always have a definite objective, in a walk as in life – it is so much more satisfying to reach a target by personal effort than to wander aimlessly. An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is…..well, aimless wandering.”
So said Alfred Wainwright in the introduction to “A Coast to Coast Walk”. Getting from one side of the country to the other, going as far as is humanly possible in a given direction, is probably about as clear an objective as one can have. That said though, he remained adamant that the title of the guide was to be taken literally: “A Coast to Coast Walk”, not “The Coast to Coast Walk”. While he also said “Surely there cannot be a finer itinerary for a long distance walk!” he was nevertheless clear that his route was a suggestion, not an instruction, and he actively encouraged walkers to come up with their own routes.
Just coasting along…
The coasts in question are those of the Irish and North Seas. Wainwright’s famous route begins at St. Bees Head in Cumbria and finishes, 192 miles later, at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. A straight line between the points is actually about 125 miles, but Wainwright was careful to make sure you could walk everywhere legally, and without having to swim. You could of course do it in the other direction, but that would mean you’d constantly have a face full of weather, so west to east is recommended.
That’s quite an important point actually. It’s not that having wind and rain in your face is life threatening and must be avoided, more that it can be pretty miserable, and this was always intended as a route to be savoured and enjoyed. Whatever Wainwright said about the satisfaction of reaching the objective, reading his guide it becomes clear that he did this not simply to gain a sense of achievement, but also because of the sheer joy of just being out there. So, west to east it is then.
The Three Parks…
Along the way, you visit three National Parks. First the mountains and, well, lakes, of the Lake District. Among other stunning locales, this takes in the spiky backbone of Helvellyn, though variants are suggested to suit the weather or, indeed, whatever you happen to fancy doing. The Lakes give way to the limestone pavement of the Westmorland Plateau before you cross the Pennines and drop, after the pointy cairns of Nine Standards Rigg, into the top of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
In the Dales, at Keld, the Coast to Coast crosses the Pennine Way. These two paths being at close quarters while their routes are at odds with one another is perhaps, if you’ll forgive a bit of airy-fairy philosophy and clunky metaphor, a nice illustration of Wainwright’s thoughts when he conceived the walk. The growing popularity of the Pennine Way made it clear that people had an appetite for long distance walking, but he wasn’t too keen on the idea of sticking rigidly to a clearly demarcated path. He wanted “to encourage in others the ambition to devise their own cross country marathons and not be merely followers of other people’s routes.”
If you do choose to take Wainwright’s advice though, then as you head back out of the Dales, you’ll get to Richmond. There aren’t many other towns visited on the route, but Wainwright reckoned Richmond was “too good to be by-passed”. Then, the undulating Vale of Mowbray leads on to the third National Park, the heather-covered North York Moors, where the route coincides with the Cleveland Way and the Lyke Wake Walk for a while, before striking out across the Moors. The Cleveland Way turns up again, skirting its way around the edge of the Park, and you join in with it once more, heading on down to Robin Hood’s Bay and the traditional visit to the Bay Hotel for beer and medals.
The post-walk pint is a tradition you’ll probably want to adhere to, but it’s not the only one.
Dipping your boots – in the Irish Sea as you start and the North Sea to finish – is a popular Coast to Coast ritual, though some would rather not dunk their leather in brine, so choose to dip their bare feet instead. Carrying a rock from St. Bee’s then releasing it back into the wild upon reaching the east coast is also common practice but, if this continues, it could ultimately result in moving Britain gradually across the North Sea until we’re butting up against Denmark, so maybe it shouldn’t be encouraged.
A rather less geologically devastating habit is the leaving of little offerings of food or coins to say thanks for a safe journey, at one of the four stone crosses – Old Ralph, Young Ralph, Old Margery or Fat Betty – around Rosedale Head in the North York Moors.
How you break the route up is up to you, of course. It’s perfectly possible to do the whole thing in a series of sections, a weekend at a time, then heading back to work during the week. However, if you’re doing it all in one go – which generally takes something like a fortnight – then the legs will be determined rather more by the availability of accommodation. Some choose to be completely self-supported, carrying everything and camping, while some B&B it (or a bit of both). There’s a sort of middle ground too, with services such as The Sherpa Van Project and The Coast to Coast Packhorse available to shuttle your gear for you, so you can do the whole thing just carrying a daysack.
Alfred Wainwright, Lakeland man to the core, reckoned that although west to east made sense, it was a shame that you get the Lakes out of the way with first. The implication appeared to be that the Lakes are the best bit, and some slightly grudging lip-service is paid to the North York Moors as nevertheless being somewhere good to finish the walk. I’ll take this opportunity, as a Yorkshireman who spent much of his childhood in the North York Moors, to say that you needn’t worry. It won’t be an anticlimax.
Coast to Coast Walk
Distance: 192 miles
Record Time: 39 h 36 m 52 s (Mike Hartley, 1991), but THAT’S NOT THE POINT!
Typical Time: About a fortnight
How Hard: about 4/10, if you’re reasonably hill-fit, well prepared, and not trying to do it in a week.
If you take a year do a section every few weeks, probably rather less. It’s hugely variable, depending on how you tackle it.
A walk right the way across the country, taking in landscapes of radically different character, with exposed craggy ridges, woodland canopy and open rolling moorland following on each other’s heels. If the craggier bits aren’t your flavour, alternatives are suggested.
Wainwright’s feeling was that he was recording the route he enjoyed so that if anybody else cared to go and take a look, they would enjoy it too. Really though, he always intended it to be an inspiration to go and discover the “thousands of long distance routes for walkers that have never suffered an official blessing”. However, although only ever intended as a suggested route – and still never enshrined in the officialdom of the National Trail network – Wainwright’s Coast to Coast has nevertheless achieved the status of a classic pilgrimage, with thousands of walkers yearly following the now very well trodden series of paths.
The paths are well trodden with good reason though: the surroundings are continually and multifariously beautiful, even in less than clement weather.
When to go
The balance of “good weather & available daylight” vs. “very crowded” is best struck in May, June and September. Try to avoid hitting touristy spots on Bank Holidays as, while you may not mind the crowds, accommodation can be a pain, even if you try to book ahead.
If you don’t want to be part of the same gang of people continually converging on the same accommodation every night (might be friendly but could get busy), try to start your walk midweek so you’ll be out of sync with everyone else.
What to take
It obviously depends on how you’re tackling it – you won’t need a tent if you book a string of B&Bs – but the following is probably relevant to everyone.
Decent boots that you’re well used to, and probably a pair of sandals or flip-flops to allow your feet to aerate in the evenings. Also for evening comfort, having a set of clothes with you that aren’t caked in mud and sweat is very welcome. It will, at some point, hammer it down with rain. Take waterproofs.
There are Coast to Coast “strip maps” detailing the route, but while they save on hefting around loads of individual maps, you might find you want to go further off route than they allow – a GPS with mapping capability could be useful in this case.